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A Million People Were In Prison Before We Called It Mass Incarceration

October’s cover of The Atlantic carries a headline that, even a decade ago, you probably never would’ve seen: “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” The 20,000-word article attached to it, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, covers the remarkable growth in the United States’ prison population and its outsize impact on black individuals, families and communities. That Coates’s piece employs the phrase “mass incarceration” 17 times1 is telling. The term has become ubiquitous in conversations about prison in the United States. But 10 years ago, barely anybody put the two words next to each other to talk about what the phrase has come to represent for many: everything that’s wrong with the American justice system.

Those six syllables evoke the country’s historically large incarcerated population2 and its causes, whether they be proven or perceived. Critics point to the country’s lengthy sentences, harsh policing, overzealous prosecution, and the war on drugs as culprits. President Obama used the phrase in his speech to the NAACP’s national conference in July. “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it,” he said. DeRay Mckesson, a prominent civil rights activist, has used the phrase many times on Twitter:

And presidential hopefuls from both parties have invoked it. “I’ve been speaking out and saying mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow,” Rand Paul said in a radio interview in June. And in April, Hillary Clinton called for an end to the “era of mass incarceration.”


How has the rise in the country’s prison population compared to the rise of the phrase? Using Nexis, I counted up the stories in U.S. newspapers and on U.S. newswires in which the phrase appeared each year and measured that against the rate of incarceration in U.S. prisons.

The imprisonment rate first reached its current level (about 500 people for every 100,000 people in the country) around 15 years ago, before “mass incarceration” began to be used with any frequency. In 2000, when 1.4 million people were in prison, “mass incarceration” appeared in only seven news stories. Google Trends mirrors the Nexis data: The phrase seemingly came out of nowhere. On Twitter, the phrase didn’t appear even once in the service’s first year of existence. The following year, it appeared just nine times. Its first utterance on the site, per Twitter’s Advanced Search, was this, from the summer of 2007:

But today alone there have been more tweets containing “mass incarceration” than I can afford to take the time to scroll through.

Yet some — including Coates himself — are largely unsatisfied with the phrase. In a note accompanying his Atlantic piece, he wrote: “Indeed, if I’d had my druthers, I would not have used the word ‘mass incarceration.’” Others, like law professors Robert Weisberg and Joan Petersilia, think the term may go too far — fair in some ways, but melodramatic in others. And still others, like sociologist Loïc Wacquant, don’t think the term goes far enough; Wacquant prefers “hyperincarceration,” to emphasize the outsize effect on African-Americans and the poor. Coates writes that “‘mass incarceration” is “an abstraction which deadens the very real violence that lurks behind the term.” And yet it’s this abstraction that’s caught on, perhaps as an echo of the complicated, often obscured system it’s meant to describe.

But what alternatives are there for describing the magnitude and complexity of America’s relationship with prison? For a broader historical picture, we can turn to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which calculates the prevalence of phrases in a large collection of books. I’ve provided some possible candidates. The frequencies in the chart below are based on a corpus of some 150 billion words.

“Mass incarceration” is the clear leader in this linguistic race. A constellation of books and articles and thinkers and activists and tweeps are likely responsible for the rise of “mass incarceration” — but it’s unlikely we can pinpoint any one text. It’s tempting, though, to give some credit to Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Yet, while it may well have aided the phrase’s spread, it was published in 2010, after the initial uptick in usage.

However it became popularized, the phrase is a long way from its origins. One of the earliest American uses I found, from 1938, describes the difficulties of rehabilitation given the “mass incarceration of hundreds or even thousands of inmates.” The current incarnation of “mass incarceration” refers to something at least a thousand times larger in scale.

The phrase has also been used to describe something else — the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans who lived on the West Coast, resulting in the incarceration of over 100,000 people. “Mass incarceration,” before about 1980, was used almost exclusively in reference to this chapter of American history. In 1976, President Gerald Ford declared this internment “one of our national mistakes” and reparations were eventually allowed for the interned.

But the very earliest use of the term I3 found was more than 100 years older and came from Karl Marx. In his 1852 “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” he wrote about the plight of the French peasantry under Napoleon III and what, in German, he called “massenhafte Einkerkerung.” In the English translation, from 1935: “But, it may be objected, what about the peasant risings in half of France, the raids on the peasants by the army, the mass incarceration and transportation of peasants?”

That quote is from the same essay in which Marx argues that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

This is the first in an occasional column about what we say, how often we say it, and where what we say comes from. Tweet at me with suggestions about what vernacular to cover!

An earlier version of this analysis appeared last summer on the blog of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, where the author was a fellow. It was adapted with permission.


  1. Including the headline and a photo caption.

  2. So large that it sets world records, not just domestic ones.

  3. Along with my able former research assistant, Zachery Crowell.

Oliver Roeder was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied game theory and political competition.